Critical vocabulary



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CRITICAL VOCABULARY

ACROSTIC A poem where the initial letter of each line

reads downwards to reveal a name or other word or phrase. Such poems are often playfully used to conceal the identity of a mistress or patron.
ALLEGORY (Greek – ‘to speak otherwise’) A story in verse or prose with two parallel narratives, one open and superficial, the other concealed. The presence of the hidden narrative is often indicated by symbolism or allusion. The connections between the two narratives are sustained and continuous. Adjective: Allegorical.
ALLITERATION Repetition of consonant sounds within poetry or prose. Adjective: Alliterative.
ALLUSION An implied reference to an individual, event, or another work of art or literature. Allusion relies upon the author’s and reader’s common frame of reference. Eg. The Bloody Captain in Macbeth alludes to the crucifixion of Christ when he describes Macbeth’s attack upon the rebels as ‘another Golgotha’.
AMBIGUITY When an author intentionally uses language

which is unclear or open to interpretation. Adjective: Ambiguous.


ANACRUSIS One or more unstressed syllables at the

beginning of a line of verse, before the normal meter begins. An up-beat of sorts.


ANAGNORISIS (Greek – ‘recognition’) The moment in a

literary work when a character moves from ignorance to knowledge, e.g. Othello’s awareness of his credulity after killing Desdemona.


ANALEPSIS A flashback or retrospection in a narrative,

often used to provide background information for the benefit of the reader or audience. An example is Prospero’s description of events in Milan twelve years before the opening of The Tempest. Adjective: Analeptic.


ANALOGUE A literary parallel; a text similar in structure

or theme to another. Adjective: Analogic.


ANAPAEST A metrical foot composed of two unstressed

syllables followed by one stressed one; e.g., “I went to the Bar as a very young man.”


ANAPHORA The repetition of one or more words in

successive lines of verse or prose sentences. It is generally used to generate rhetorical momentum. Adjective: Anaphoric.


ANTAGONIST The chief character in opposition or moral contrast to the Protagonist (qv). The antagonist is often villainous, but this is reversed if the protagonist is evil. Eg. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice; Macduff in Macbeth.
ANTI-CLIMAX A deflation of Narrative (qv), switching from intensified expectations to Bathos (qv) or disappointment. It is often used for comic effect. Adjective: Anti-Climactic.
ANTI-HERO A central character who conspicuously fails

to conform to traditional qualities and moral standards of the hero; a figure who lacks heroic virtues. Eg. Pinkie in Brighton Rock; Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger.


ANTITHESIS A terse oppositional phrase with polarized

ideas balanced against each other. Eg. “O impotence of mind, in body strong!” (Milton). Adjective: Antithetical.


ANTHROPOMORPHISM To impose human values or attributes upon

creatures or the inanimate world. Eg. phrases such as “The Hand of God”, “The song of the whale”. Anthropomorphism is ubiquitous in Aesop’s Fables – and Rupert the Bear. Adjective: Anthropomorphic.


ANTONYM A word meaning the opposite of another: e.g. fair/foul; truthful/dishonest; short/long; flippant/solemn. Antonym’s own antonym is Synonym. Adjective: Antonymous.
APHORISM A compressed statement, usually philosophical or reflective in character, and often witty. Eg. “A prince should provoke neither fear nor war”; “Dogs, gamblers, lovers and fire are never content with little”. See also Maxim. Adjective: Aphoristic.
APOLOGY A written defence of a controversial published opinion. Also Apologia.
APOSTROPHE An address to an abstract idea, entity, absent or dead person, location or thing. Eg. “O Death, where is thy sting?”; or “Amen to that, sweet powers.”
APTRONYM A name chosen to reflect the personality,

physical appearance or other aspect of a character. Eg. Mr Gradgrind; Miss Dainty Fidget; Sir Toby Belch; Mr Fondlewife. Adjective: Aptronymic.


ARCHAISM The use of obsolete or outmoded words. It is

often used to lend an antiquated or quaint feel to prose or verse; depending upon context, it can also appear affected or self-conscious. Adjective: Archaic.


ARCHETYPE A paradigmatic or stock character with

universal application, regardless of time, place or genre. Eg. The dashing hero; the troubled genius; the scolding wife; the strong-spirited daughter; the lecherous priest; the insolent servant; the loveable rogue; the tart with heart. Adjective: Archetypal.


ASIDE Dramatic convention where characters express thoughts to themselves or the audience without being overheard by other characters on stage.
ASSONANCE The repetition of vowel sounds in

neighbouring words.


ASYNDETON The omission of conjunctives to create

greater compression. It lends prose greater urgency, edge or immediacy. Eg. “The hot city, menacing, rebellious. Angry people, restless, impatient.”


AUBADE A poem celebrating the dawn, or a poem

about lovers parting at daybreak.


BALLAD A song telling a story, originally

accompanied by dancing. In general, ballads reflect low or humble subjects. The theme is often tragic, sensational and moral, the language direct and simple, and it is often punctuated by a Refrain (qv). Adjective: Balladic.


BATHOS The unintentional fall into absurdity by an

author aiming at elevated expression. Adjective: Bathetic.


BAWDY The literary term for vulgarity, coarseness

and sexual innuendo.


BEAST FABLE A short moral tale where animals replace

men and women yet show human characteristics. They are frequently satirical in intent. Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale is an example, as are most of Aesop’s Fables.


BILDUNGSROMAN (German – ‘formation novel’) A story

following a character’s growth or development through childhood, adolescence and into adult life.


BLANK VERSE Unrhymed lines of iambic pentameters. This is the most common English verse form and is believed to reflect the rhythms of everyday speech. Should not be confused with Free Verse (qv).
BLAZON (French, ‘coat-of-arms’). Rhetorical device in poetry where the beauties of a mistress are itemized in a schematic top-down manner. The poet conventionally praises the lady’s hair, brow, eyebrows, eyes, nose, lips, teeth, breath, chin, neck, breasts. John Donne had, of course, to work up from the feet in “Love’s Progress”…. The tradition was introduced by Petrarch and frequently imitated.
BOMBAST Absurdly inflated language, often ill-suited

to the theme. When deployed intentionally by the author, it is usually uttered by pompous or ridiculous characters. Adjective: Bombastic.

BURLESQUE A parody of a serious literary work, often

applying the style of the elegant original to a low or vulgar theme.


CACOPHONY Harshness of sound in verse or prose. Adjective: Cacophonic.
CADENCE The melodic rise and fall of patterns of

speech, prose or verse. See also Inflection (qv).


CAESURA (Latin, ‘cut’). A pause in poetry dictated by the break in clause or sentence. An initial caesura occurs near the beginning of a line, a medial caesura near the middle of a line, and a terminal caesura towards the end of a line.
CANON A body of works which a consensus of critics, scholars and other experts hold to be exemplary of a nation’s literature. Adjective: Canonical.
CANTO (Italian, ‘song’). A subdivision of an Epic poem, equivalent to the chapter of a novel.
CARPE DIEM (Latin – ‘seize the day’) A common theme in

poetry where the reader or addressee is advised to make the most of fleeting time. Such poems are often an invitation to sensuality, but can also warn of imminent judgement and the afterlife. Famous examples are Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time,” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”


CATASTROPHE (Greek – ‘overturning’) The tragic

Dénouement (qv) of a play or novel, often involving the death of the Protagonist (qv).
CATHARSIS (Greek – ‘purgation’) 1. The purging of guilt

or unhealthy emotion from the Protagonist in a Tragedy (qqv). 2. The purging of horror and fear from the audience at the end of a tragedy. Adjective: Cathartic.


CHARACTERIZATION The representation of figures in literature,

including details of psychology, motivation, appearance and social role. Flat characters have only one distinguishing feature; Round characters have complex, convincing features; Stock characters conform to familiar stereotypical roles; Static characters do not undergo any moral growth or other transformation through the course of the narrative.


CHARACTERNYM See Aptronym.
CHORUS A group of actors speaking or singing in

unison in drama or poetry. Deriving from Greek drama, the chorus often expresses communal responses to the action. Adjective: Choric.


CIRCUMLOCUTION Roundabout or digressive speech or writing,

perhaps to conceal information or avoid offence. Adjective: Circumlocutory.


CLIMAX The moment in a narrative where a crisis is

resolved. Adjective: Climactic.


CLOSURE The sense of resolution or completion at the

end of a literary work.


COLLOQUIALISM The use of informal expression or Dialect

Words (qv). Adjective: Colloquial.


COMEDY (Greek – ‘revel’) A play or other work

written to amuse an audience. Comedies are usually set in the everyday world, examine social manners, and frequently treat the trials of love. Comedies almost always have happy endings for the chief characters, perhaps marriage or an improvement in circumstances. In medieval literature the term was applied to any story with a happy ending. Adjectives: Comic, Comedic.


COMIC RELIEF The insertion of a short comic episode within a larger, tragic work. This can be used to alleviate tension, intensify pathos or throw the major issues of a play into contrast.
COMPLAINT A melancholy poem expressing discontent or emotional trauma. The theme of complaints is typically unhappiness in love, especially the cruelty of a mistress, but they can also treat political estrangement or other misfortunes.
CONCEIT (Latin – ‘concept’; Italian – ‘witty trifle’) A

fanciful metaphor depending upon an unlikely parallel or surprising or daring comparison. Conceits are typically found in sixteenth and seventeenth-century poetry, notably the Metaphysical poets where they are often sustained displays of inventive wit. This species of metaphor appeals principally to the intellect, and is more rarely sensually vivid.


CONFLICT The collision of ideas, outlooks, interests or

ambitions in a narrative. Conflict can occur between individuals, typically perhaps a man and a woman, between an individual and his environment or social context, or between an individual and an element within his own psyche.


CONSONANCE A form of half-rhyme involving the repetition of consonants, usually at the end of words; e.g. “blank” and “think”; “strong” and “string”; “swan” and “stone”. See also Assonance.
CONTEMPTUS MUNDI Expressions of disaffection and mistrust of the world and human achievement. The writer warns of the fleeting nature of human life and the impermanence of human endeavour, contrasting these with the eternal values of heaven.



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